- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

NEW DELHI — Student elections are major affairs in India, where political parties poured $500,000 into one recent contest and the winner was invited to celebrate at the home of Congress party President Sonia Gandhi.

Ragini Nayak, new president of the 300,000-member student body at Delhi University, now occupies a spacious sky-blue office with a team of security guards and men to bring tea for visitors.

“When you get a mandate here, it’s not a mandate from a metropolitan city, it’s a mandate from the whole nation,” said Miss Nayak, a 22-year old English master’s-degree candidate whose fellow students hail from across the country and around the globe.

She believes that is why the political parties are so interested in campus elections, especially at big universities like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), both in New Delhi.

Congress and its national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), throw almost as much support behind their student nominees as behind candidates for Parliament.



Each major party has an affiliated student organization, with Congress leaders hand-picking student candidates backed by the National Student Union of India. The rival Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad serves as the student wing of the BJP.

The phenomenon has deep roots, with many of India’s popular political leaders having begun their careers with campus campaigns.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former BJP prime minister, was active in the student movement for India’s independence in the 1940s.

Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, from the eastern state of Bihar, also rose from a poor background through student politics. Ironically, he banned student unions in his state soon after he was elected its chief minister.

Another veteran of student politics is Anand Kumar, a JNU professor who, in 1974, defeated the current leader of India’s most powerful communist party, Prakash Karat, to become president of JNU’s student body.

Mr. Kumar was subsequently jailed with other student politicians during a state of emergency declared by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The end of the emergency brought a resurgence of campus politics that swept the country.

Student campaigns still reflect some of the grim excesses of Indian politics.

Groups of young men typically hand out fliers, harass opponents and interrupt classes during campaigns, and armed police are often deployed to keep the peace. Web sites list the names of student “martyrs” who have been killed or maimed in interparty fighting.

Even so, New Delhi campuses are a haven of calm compared with universities in the troubled northeastern state of Assam, said Ankita Bhattacharjee, a former candidate for vice president at JNU who transferred from Assam.

Miss Bhattacharjee said she was active in politics in Assam but never dared to run for a major office in that state, where the powerful All Assam Students’ Union is blamed for widespread unrest.

“I cannot say I was not afraid,” she said, “but I also cannot say that I don’t believe in things I stood for.”

She said violence can be mitigated by tough administrations, which have the power to close campuses. JNU is well monitored, but in Assam and many other places, campuses are more open and vulnerable to bored, unemployed youths who are eager to cause trouble.

Smaller parties also play a role in campus politics, including the far-left Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

Its successful recent candidates include Tyler Walker Williams, an American student who recently was elected as a counselor at one of JNU’s many schools.

“Being an American and being in a radical left group has given me some credibility,” said Mr. Williams, who studies Hindi and gives all his speeches in the language.

“When they saw someone from the U.S. was taking such a political risk, [the other students] knew he must be serious.”

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